It was thirty-eight degrees outside, and my balls were freezing, but I stayed put out in the open and the blowing wind. I wanted to be sure we were the first thing Braxton saw when she was wheeled from the hospital.
It had been ten days since she ripped my heart from my chest. Her parents had kicked us out when they arrived, and there was nothing we could do when they forbade us from seeing her.
Braxton, always the merciless mind-fucker, kept her expression neutral as I took her in. She had bruising under her eyes and on her cheeks that were beginning to fade and wore the change of clothes we had Dani deliver thanks to Rosalie tipping us off that today was her sister’s discharge date.
Eventually, Braxton tore her gaze away and lifted her head to say something to her mother.
When Mrs. Fawn immediately started to argue, we started forward. Amelia had no power outside of that hospital, and we weren’t leaving here without her daughter.
Our only relief was the amusement in Braxton’s gaze as her mother became more and more upset by the syllable. We were close enough now to clearly make out their conversation.
“They didn’t have to tell me you banned them from seeing me, Mother. How would they? I know you. Better still, I know them.”
“Braxton, I did what was best for you, and I will not apologize.”
“No. You did what was best for you. If it had been about me, the support I needed, however much, would have outweighed your comfort.”
It was clear whatever common ground the two had found over the last week and a half had ended.
“You’ve made it clear how you feel about my choices, Braxton, but if you don’t have to apologize for who you are, why should I?”
Braxton nodded her agreement and then raised one truth with another. “Exactly. It was your choice. I’ve never tried to force my ideas on you, and I’ve never ostracized you for thinking differently than me.”
“Is that what you call raising and protecting you?”
“I’m an adult now, Mom. What’s your excuse?” Braxton asked her dryly.
“You told your sister to murder an innocent life when it goes against everything we’ve taught you both. That’s my excuse.”
“Mom.” Braxton closed her eyes and kept them shut. “For the last time, I never told Rosalie to abort her baby. She knew what she wanted before she came to me. I didn’t put those thoughts in her head or the words in her mouth. She spoke them all on her own. My only crime was offering to stand by her no matter what.” Her eyes opened, and they met her mother’s. “Something we both knew you’d fail to do.”
“Rosalie’s a child. She didn’t know what she was saying.”
“I considered that,” Braxton told her while nodding again. “So I made sure I didn’t sugarcoat a damn thing, and guess what, Mom? Rosalie never wavered. Not even once. Because she didn’t want to be a wife and mother. She wanted to stay a kid. She wanted to grow up on her time. She wanted the chance to find herself.” My baby gave her mother a withering look. “Clearly, the repercussions of having an abortion didn’t scare her nearly as much as you.”
Braxton stood from the wheelchair on shaky legs, but when we started forward to help her, she gave us a look to back the hell off. Loren and I held up our hands in surrender as we did just that.
“So congratulations, Mother. Your personal opinions just cost Rosalie her dreams, her childhood, the chance at true love, and the next eighteen years of her life. But as you pointed out, you made your choice, so why not make your daughter’s too.”
Braxton shrugged as if it didn’t matter, but her eyes told a different story.
“I’m her mother. That is my job.”
“No. It’s your job to provide her safety, love, and support. And yes, help her find a direction. It is not your job to choose who she is, what she believes in, or how her future gets to be. That was always meant for Rosalie to decide when the time came.” Braxton started to limp toward us when she stopped and turned back to her mother. “Spoiler alert—it’s not at thirteen.”
Loren had snuck up on Braxton when she turned toward us again and lifted her in his arms before she could object. She smiled at him, and it felt like a punch to the gut.
I’d missed that sight.
Braxton didn’t bother to say goodbye to her mother when we turned to go, but clearly, Amelia wasn’t done.
“You should take some responsibility, Braxton. This isn’t all on your father and me. If you weren’t such a whore despite all we’ve done to teach you, none of this would have happened to your sister. She looked up to you, and look where it got her.”
Loren slowly turned with Braxton in his arms. I did too. She put her finger to his lips before he could say anything and then kissed them.
“Take me home,” was all she said before laying her head on his chest.
Despite her cruel words, it didn’t change the fact that Amelia had come to her daughter’s side when she needed her most. Braxton would never forget that. At the moment, she was repaying her mother’s short-lived kindness by protecting her from our wrath.
Loren started for my truck with her while I took one last look at Amelia Fawn. It was foolish to hope I would never see her ass again, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Where’s Jericho?” Braxton asked once we reached the G-Wagon.
Loren and I looked at each other, but neither of us said a word as he helped her into the back, and I climbed into the driver’s seat. Braxton’s gaze switched back and forth between us as she waited for the answer that we couldn’t bring ourselves to give.
He leaned down to gently kiss her lips before closing the door in her face. I made sure to keep my gaze forward as Loren climbed in the front seat, and then I peeled off out of the parking lot, heading toward home.
“You guys are both jerks.”
It was all Braxton managed to get out before Jericho grabbed her and started tonguing her down with a groan right there in the doorway. “I missed you,” he said to her, “and I’m so fucking sorry. So goddamn sorry.”
Emily’s aim hadn’t been true.
She’d been so wrapped up in her misplaced anger and scorn that she ended up putting a bullet in the wall rather than his heart. Loren had wrestled the gun from her and kept her ass in check long enough for the cops to come. By then, my grandmother had called to tell us what had become of Braxton. Emily had been lucky the cops had already arrived, or she’d be buried out back rather than sitting in a jail cell.
I once threatened Braxton with the same, but back then, it had been just another mind game. I hadn’t meant a word of it.
I couldn’t say the same for Emily.
Loren and I left Jericho and Braxton where they were as we entered the house and looked around, taking in the banner, streamers, food, and drinks.
Jericho had stayed behind to oversee and finish setting up Braxton’s welcome home party. The guest list was short, but it was more than we’d ever allowed inside our home before. We’d even invited Oni, who’d quit Savant recently and mysteriously, and was currently looking like a fish out of water while ensuring Xavier stayed on the far side of the room from her.
“Excuse me, but you’re not the only one who was worried and missed Braxton,” Griffin bitched as usual as she approached them.
“Why did we invite her again?” Loren whispered to me with his eyes on them.
I shrugged because I honestly didn’t know. She was Braxton’s best friend so…whatever. Maeko was busy chatting up Xavier while Griffin tried and failed to free Braxton from Jericho. The more she pulled, the harder he clung.
“Hey, cut that shit out,” I finally barked when I had enough of their tug-of-war. Braxton had just been released from the hospital an hour ago. “Not so fucking rough with her.”
Jericho finally let our girl go with a few last pecks and walked away. Braxton blushed and flashed me a quick smile before finally turning to Griffin.
While they talked, I found Loren and Rich in the kitchen standing on opposite sides of the island.
Loren was stuffing his face while Jericho peered into a brown box with Amazon tape. Dani, who must have checked the locker we used for our mail, had brought it with her when she showed up for the party.
“What the hell is this, Lo?”
Rich pulled out duct tape and rope, holding one in each hand as he stared at Loren.
“Oh, hey, it came!” With a mouth full of cupcake, Loren smiled wide as his opaque eyes glittered.
“What do you need two-hundred feet of tape and rope for?” I asked him after peering into the box and seeing more.
Loren was nonchalant now as he brushed his hands free of crumbs, leaving them on the counter instead. “Hopefully, you won’t find out.” While Rich and I gaped at him, Loren swiftly changed topics. “So, are you planning to tell Braxton about that shit you tried to pull?” he asked Jericho.
“I was thinking I’d let her enjoy her party and being home first,” Rich sniped sarcastically. He threw the tape and rope back into the box and pushed it toward me.
I knew all the best hiding spots.
“Right…the party. You just don’t want her knowing you’re as stupid as you look.”
“I’m dumb,” Rich returned with a sneer, “but you were sucking my dick two hours ago. Make it make sense, Lo.”
Loren shrugged as he licked icing off his thumb while staring at our best friend. “I was excited and feeling generous because Braxton was coming home. Sue me.”
Rich glowered at him while Loren flirted with his eyes.
Braxton ambled in a moment later, and our attention was stolen. The moment she was close enough, I lifted her and set her on the counter.
“How are you feeling?” I felt like a sap as I skimmed her cheek with my lips. I didn’t care. She made me not care.
“Sore,” she admitted on a mumble. “Weak. Mostly confused.”
I lifted my head. “Confused?”
“I can’t…I can’t tell what I’m feeling.” She looked at Loren, Rich, and then back at me. “Or if I’m feeling anything at all.”
My hands found her thighs, and I began to caress her through her jeans, hoping to soothe when she started to shake. “What do you mean?”
“I can’t tell when I’m scared or when I’m happy or excited. There are no smells or tastes to tell me. I’ve never learned how to identify my emotions without them. What if I’ve lost the ability to feel anything at all? I’m afraid—”
“Right there,” I told her, cutting her off. “You’re afraid. How do you know?”
“I…” She shook her head with a frustrated frown. “I don’t know.”
“Your emotions were never just a neurological response. It’s also been about instinct. What’s in your gut and what’s in your heart. You don’t have to think.” I lifted her chin when she lowered her gaze. There was nothing for her down there. “You just have to feel. Your brain gave you an extra advantage that you’ve relied on until now, but you’ve always been a quick learner, Braxton. You’ll figure this one out too.” I kissed her. “We’ll help you,” I told her as Loren and Rich closed in.
They stole her attention, and she took her time kissing each of them before leaning back on her hands and smiling at us.
“Good, because I have something to tell you.”
“What?” the three of us asked a little too eagerly.
She shook her head, and damn that teasing smile. It already did unspeakable things to me without the added suspense. “Later.”
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Loren said.
Braxton, Rich, and I groaned before he had the chance to say more.
Loren thinking was never a good thing since it usually involved him igniting the flame and setting the world on fire.
“What’s up?” Rich reluctantly asked him.
“First of all, fuck you.” He paused long enough to wink at Braxton. “I’ve been thinking about that fight with your mom,” he said to her. “And baby sis.”
In an instant, Braxton’s brown eyes were sad, and she didn’t bother to hide the emotion or push it aside. She let us see. “What about them?”
“You said it was too late for Rosalie. Why does it have to be?”
“Because she’s Faithful’s now,” Braxton answered, her tone leaving no room for argument. She knew that town and its people better than we did.
Loren, however, was just as stubborn. “You joined Bound to send a message.” His eyes flickered to me for some reason before returning to her. “Maybe you just weren’t loud enough.”
“But Braxen’s here now,” she reminded Loren, referring to her nephew. “And I don’t regret him. Neither does Rosalie.” Braxton grimaced suddenly. “I just wish I could say the same about her husband, Pete. Apparently, my sister’s talking to the atheist she met online again.”
“That’s kind of my point, babe.” Loren flashed her a patient smile. “Baby sis hasn’t made up her mind yet. You can still get through to her.”
Braxton stiffened. I could see the struggle not to hope in her eyes. “How?” she eventually asked him anyway.
Loren’s eyes returned to me, and this time, they held. It only took a moment for me to read his mind.
It took even less time for me to decide.